Baltimore bridge collapse: What to do in case your car is submerged in water

It’s one of the scariest scenarios imaginable when you’re on the road: You suddenly find your car is submerged in water.

What should you do, other than not panic?

Fox News Digital spoke with Tina Paff, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist for Bick’s Driving School of Southwest Ohio, about how to stay safe in the event of a submersion.

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“Water submersion occurs more often than most people think,” Paff said on Wednesday.

A 2016 study from the University of Manitoba noted that every year, around 400 people die in submerged vehicles in North America — accounting for up to 10% of all drownings. 

Car going into water

Car water submersions happen much more often than people think, said a certified driver rehabilitation specialist. (iStock)

Flooding is the primary reason for these occurrences, according to Paff. 

“Water submersion occurs more often than most people think.”

“Sometimes it involves losing control of a vehicle during a storm next to a body of water, like a river, and a car will accidentally drive into that,” she told Fox News Digital. 

Then there are the rarer catastrophic events — such as the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Maryland on Tuesday.

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While a water submersion incident is terrifying and dangerous, Paff said that with a “calm demeanor, you can survive.” She shared tips for how to do that, should it happen. 

What to do if your car is headed for a plunge

If you know you’re heading for a plunge, the first step is to brace yourself with both hands on the wheel and be ready for the impact, Paff advised.

The first thing to do as soon as your car hits the water is to release your seatbelt as quickly as possible, she said.

Car flooded in street

A certified driver rehabilitation specialist recommended holding your steering wheel tight if your car is heading for water.  (iStock)

The second most important thing is to get the window open. 

“You will have a period of time before the water starts to fill the car,” Paff said. 

“So the two most important factors are seatbelt removal and opening the front window so that you can escape.”

If someone is in your backseat and your headrest is removable, it’s best to remove that so the person can swim out the front window, the expert said.

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“If you’re in a situation where the car becomes submerged quickly and there’s no time to open the window, the next best thing is to break the window,” she said.

The problem is that most people don’t have a tool in their car to break the window — which is why Paff recommends always keeping an emergency hammer close at hand.

“The other option is that if the headrest is removable, you could possibly use that to break the window,” she suggested. 

Sinking car in river

Breaking the driver’s side window with a removable headrest can also be a way to get out of the car, suggested one expert. (iStock)

If you can’t get out the window, the next approach — after unbuckling your seatbelt — would be to try and push the door open with your feet, using your heels.

“There will be a lot of pressure, so it will take maximum force,” Paff said.

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“Overall, staying focused, trying not to panic and taking immediate action are your three most important steps.”

First responders generally echo Paff’s advice, urging people to remember the acronym POGO: Pop the seatbelt, Open the window, and Get Out.

Remember the acronym POGO: Pop the seatbelt, Open the window, and Get Out.

For most cars, it will take between 30 and 60 seconds before complete submersion.

Tips for prevention

To prevent dangerous submersions, Paff urged caution when driving through shallow water.

“You definitely want to stay in control of the steering wheel by keeping both hands on the wheel and driving slow and steady,” she advised. 

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“Try not to brake or speed up, but keep your speed at a minimal, slow speed,” she went on. 

“Try not to oversteer and swerve the wheel.”

Once you’re through the water, test your brakes at a low speed to make sure they are working properly, Paff advised.

Car submerged in water

A certified driver rehabilitation specialist recommended not trying to hit the breaks or speed up when hitting the water.  (iStock)

While the National Weather Service’s “Turn Around Don’t Drown” campaign advises drivers to avoid going through standing water at all times, it’s possible to find water rushing toward a vehicle and finding nowhere to turn toward safety. 

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If you find yourself driving in a flash flood, experts recommend following three safety tips:

1. Keep away from water that can flow more than halfway up your tires.

2. Try getting to the roof.

3. If you slip, grab onto material that is not moving in the water.

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